On the farthest edge of Sands Point, L.I., the house known as Lands End stood wind-battered and decrepit, its face scarred from years of relentless salty gusts ripping off the top of Long Island Sound. In its last days it lingered there on the shore, barely past the water, as a colossal relic from the long-gone Gold Coast. They say it was the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan’s house in The Great Gatsby.
Yet if Lands End could be seen today by the eyes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he would squint in a lack of recognition. Soon he would squint and see nothing at all. Developers have already begun pummeling away at the column-bedecked palace to make space for a five-home subdivision. Goodbye, Gatsby; hello, Seagate at Sands Point.
It’s the climax of years of bitter squabbling and debate, fights that pitted owners past and present at each others’ throats. The commodification of the Jazz Age legacy has been a boon to Great Neck developers for ages, but as Lands End goes, so goes an era of Long Island real estate. It’s the death knell for a rot that began in the 1930s, when Robert Moses’ freeways delivered the shabby masses to what had been a millionaires’ playground. Since then, the dismantling of the zone that inspired East Egg and West Egg has made those who tear down old houses very, very wealthy.
There’s one little thing, though, that’s been swept mostly under the rug during the Lands End saga. The house, it turns out, actually has nothing to do with The Great Gatsby.
There’s no firm evidence Fitzgerald ever visited. Lands End doesn’t match the description of the Buchanan household as described by Nick Carraway. No cheerful red-and-white Georgian mansion. No French windows. No sundial-jumping lawn rolling right off the beach. It’s not, as it’s usually touted, a Stanford White—the architect was shot in the face before the plans for the house were drawn up. When Gatsby’s outstretched arms tried to tickle the fuzzy remnants of a green light, it wasn’t coming from Lands End. The house lies on the other side of the peninsula, making it impossible to see from Gatsby’s presumed abode in Great Neck. And there’s the issue of timing. The book was published before Herbert Bayard Swope—the playboy newspaper editor who turned the property into the site of Gatsbyesque weekend bacchanals with all-night croquet, cocktails and extramarital cavorting—even bought the property.
But the myth still persists and, in a way, it supersedes the truth. There are curious details that some see in the distance and cling to as proof. In dealing with the Fitzgerald legend, those who tried in vain to save the house from the wrecking ball and the lot from its ordained McMansions had to dip into revisionism and blur fact and fiction.
Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can, old sport.
VIRGINIA KRAFT PAYSON SOLD Lands End to Burt Brodsky, the man who arranged for its demolition, in 2005, for $17.5 million. The original asking price was $50 million. Ms. Payson’s rules of negotiation were firm: She did not want the acreage split into new houses.
“They misrepresented themselves,” Ms. Payson told The Observer, reached on her horse-racing ranch in Kentucky. “I would not show it to any developer. He said that his life’s ambition was to live in that manor, but it was very clear at the closing that they had no intention of living in it.”
Ms. Payson, a thoroughbred breeder who runs a training center called Payson Stud, lived in the house for 23 years. She kindled its hearth long after the death of her husband, New York Mets owner Charles Shipman Payson. And since she relinquished ownership of the house to Mr. Brodsky and his son, David, Ms. Payson has become increasingly bitter over their decision to raze it.
Not that anyone’s noticed. In their coverage of the destruction of the house on Hoffstots Lane, the New York Post and Newsday both referred to her as “the late” Ms. Payson.
“I am not only alive and well but angry and disgusted,” she told The Observer. “They are the most awful people I have ever heard of, and that includes terrorists and dictators. They have taken a work of art and permitted it to be totally decimated.”
The plans for the subdivision passed through the planning board with little friction, said Randy Bond, Sands Point village clerk. This may be because the house is in horrid shape. It stood the past few years uninhabited, until it became uninhabitable.
“It was in pristine condition when I left,” Ms. Payson said. “He let it fall apart. He stripped everything out that he could sell, which is sacrilegious. I went by the house perhaps two years after we sold it, and that’s when I realized how he was going to get around the town’s objections. Broken windows, storming in—it’s sinful.”
The loss of a Gold Coast house is tragic to those who cherish local history, but Ms. Payson’s raucous complaints belie the disingenuous retelling of Lands End’s Fitzgerald connection. The supposed tie to The Great Gatsby was referenced repeatedly by Sheldon Good & Co.—who shopped the house for Ms. Payson at its steep price—despite the evidence stacked against such claims. One ad: “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a masterpiece here.” Another: “The inspiration for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s home.”
“It is not the house in The Great Gatsby in any way, shape or form,” said Alfred Allen Lewis, who published a biography about Swope. “The house is simply a place he lived in and everyone had a good time, and it has no other significance in the world. Saving this house is a ridiculous thing.”
“There’s always been a great legend about what’s accurate and what may simply be a folklore story,” said Mike Fine, who worked with Sheldon Good on brokering the deal between Ms. Payson and the Brodskys. “We included that information because that’s part of the history of the home. We’re not taking sides on the accuracy, because there are many different theories.”
Ms. Payson doesn’t consider the Fitzgerald narrative of Lands End to be a “theory.” When speaking to The Observer, the facts, or lack thereof, never tempted her to waver.
“Historians have always said that it’s the house in Gatsby, and so do I,” she said. Dissenting opinions, she said, are put forth to “justify all they have done.”
Bert Brodsky’s dissenting opinion is that Ms. Payson is delusional, vain or both.
“The lore is that Gatsby was written about it, that it’s East Egg, that it’s Stanford White—that’s L-O-R-E,” he told The Observer. “She went with the L-O-R-E. It’s exciting to say she lived there! To say, ‘I lived in the same house as Daisy!’”
A QUICK TOUR of Lands End as it would have been in its prime: 20,000 square feet, 25 rooms, 10 baths, 10 fireplaces, 10 bedrooms, a pool, a pool house set below a terrace with gut-punching vistas of the sound, a seven-car garage, a guest house, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden, separate quarters for the caretakers, a tennis court, a tennis house and enough empty space on its 14 acres to play croquet with the entire New York Yacht Club.
“Have you seen the place? It’s a drop-dead unbelievable house on a spot not to be believed!” Mr. Brodsky, in realtor mode, said before broaching the topic of his choice to knock it down. “It’s just a special piece of property.”
The Observer had in fact seen the place—or at least what’s left of it. On Friday, April 8, we hopped on the Long Island Railroad to Port Washington and met up with Cliff Fetner, construction manager on the project. Mr. Fetner spoke in a muted Long Island honk. With his glasses and baby-blue sweater, he looked more a quiet neighbor than a man who demolishes houses for a living.
Sitting shotgun in his silver Mercedes, we zoomed around until the town—where the main strip is neglected during the cold seasons and “summer” is a verb, not a noun—got folded over by reams of sycamore, the once clear road fully ensconced in foliage. Then Mr. Fetner made a right.
“Here’s an example of what’s going to happen,” he said. The sedan caromed through a decade-old development, near-identical houses lining both sides of the road. It was once the estate of William Averell Harriman, the governor of New York. Each lot had 2 acres, and the values of the homes ranged from a few million to a few tens of millions.
“I don’t like to use the term ‘subdivision,’” Mr. Fetner said, rounding a turn. “I prefer the word ‘enclave.’”
We exited the subdivision, pinballed on tight angles and soon reached the last bit of solid ground before we reached the water, and the peeling white wood of Lands End loomed before us. By the entranceway, once gilded and enviable, were stark warnings of fanged dogs hung on a rusted electrical fence. Mr. Fetner jiggled his key in the gate, and we walked in. Cracked pavement wound past the blob of vine growth swallowing the greenhouse. The caretaker’s cabin was just a stump of its old structure.
The house itself was in a similar state of disrepair. Ms. Payson commissioned a regiment of yearly paint jobs to combat the wear and tear of rain and ocean, but the Brodskys didn’t bother with such conditioning—or any conditioning whatsoever—and so the Doric columns had rotted, molted under sickly perspiration, the sidings eaten out, all of it faded to a soggy spin on off-white.
Yet there was Swope’s great green lawn that extended seaward in the specter of the mansion’s bulk. It was where Dorothy Parker would come with the Algonquin Round Table and plunge into benders. After one grueling string of parties at Lands End a hung-over Parker coughed up this threat: “I wouldn’t go back to the Swopes’ to see King Kong unzip his fly.” The lawn witnessed croquet matches between Harpo Marx and Harold Ross; meetings between John Hay Whitney and David O. Selznick that secured funding for Gone With the Wind; pre-dinner jaunts with Edward and Wallis, Duke and Duchess of Windsor; the re-creation of the life of Aristotle Onassis for the film The Greek Tycoon; and later photo shoots with Madonna and Kate Moss.
Mr. Fetner unraveled a blueprint on the hood of his Mercedes. Like the acreage, the view of the water will be parceled out evenly between the five houses, arranged through a process that the construction manager called “vista easement.”
Inside, the kitchen lay wrecked, as if a hurricane had blown through, empty apart from stacked beams and a single container of mayonnaise. The ballroom spilled open to the right, its chandelier gone, the wallpaper torn and cracked, the tin ceiling’s skin tarred and pockmarked, as if infected by a virus. From there The Observer walked gingerly—the floor might collapse at any moment—and arrived at the grand staircase, which led up to the row of bedrooms and high parlors. The house had been so battered by the elements that it assumed the eerie look of a long-sunken ship, every inch waterlogged and warped.
“It’s not about need, it’s about want,” Mr. Fetner said, sizing up the excesses the house once welcomed. “Who lives like this! People in Japan need shit. This? Nah.”
We walked to the backyard, where the full panorama of the sea unfolded ahead of us. Bushels of purple shells, picked up and left by seagulls, spilled out of the half-crescent pool house and leaked down into the muck-clogged swimming pool. Rubble lay strewn across the terrace. Sand dollars were cracked. The view was spectacular. Mr. Fetner took a step toward the ledge and pointed across the sound.
“When it’s clear, you can see the people walking across the water,” he said. “The house just sits here taking it all in.”
He twisted his neck to look at Lands End.
“It’s gonna take a few days to knock it down.”
THE CONFUSION REGARDING the Lands End legend came about through a mix-up of Swope’s houses. When Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby in a rented split-level in Great Neck, he would finish his days on the porch of the Mange, the home of sportswriter and humorist Ring Lardner. A few houses down East Shore Road, on the backside of Great Neck that lips the mouth of Manhasset Bay, Swope owned a house more modest than his later Sands Point mansion, though certainly no less debauched.
“It was party all the time,” Mr. Lewis, Swope’s biographer, told The Observer. “People were out there every weekend. Supposedly there were two sets of servants—one to work all day and one to work all night. The card games were the big numbers, and the guests were everyone who was anyone.”
Scott and Zelda, of course, partook.
“More than once, on Monday mornings, when the staff were going out to clean up things, they would find Scott Fitzgerald asleep on the lawn,” Herbert Bayard Swope Jr. told Croquet World in 2005. (He died in 2008.) “They’d wake him up and send him home.”
Fitzgerald scholars agree that the author modeled West Egg on Great Neck. But there’s no evidence he ever visited Lands End. Steven Goldleaf, a professor at Pace University who made a documentary about the writer’s relationship to Long Island, called this “a kind of obvious mistake for people to make.”
“Sure, Swope invited Fitzgerald to all these fabulous parties which were inspiration for the book,” Mr. Goldleaf told The Observer. “But not at that house.”
Sands Point historian Irmgard Carras has spent the past month swatting off writers and residents who asked why these people are tearing down Daisy Buchanan’s house.
“They tried to make that ‘the Great Gatsby House,’ but it’s not visible from Great Neck,” she said. “You go over to Great Neck and try to see it, and you cannot. You cannot see Lands End.”
One can, however, catch a glimpse of the house from Kings Point, the northernmost tip of the Great Neck egg. This fact makes Ruth Prigozy—professor of English at Hofstra and executive director of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society—a believer in the myth of Lands End.
“The two of them”—Fitzgerald and Lardner—“used to sit on the porch and drink and look across the water, and when you look across the water, you can’t see Lands End,” Ms. Prigozy told The Observer. “But they used to go to parties at Kings Point, and you can see Lands End from there. I think that he would see Lands End, and that he was there a couple of times. I think he was tremendously impressed by it.”
There’s also Monica Randall, author of Mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast, and her fervent claims that the deniers simply haven’t talked to the right people. Her research, decades ago, gave her access to the butlers and caretakers who staffed Lands End in its heyday. She claims that before they died, these witnesses possessed the real story.
“There were hundreds of people still alive, and they were still pretty sharp,” Ms. Randall told The Observer. “Those are the people I pestered relentlessly. I would follow them around with a notebook and camera. This had to be captured—well, Fitzgerald already captured it, but people think it’s fiction! To this day, people think that book was fiction. They were all real people. I have a list somewhere …”
She trailed off, shuffled papers for a second and then admitted she didn’t know where her list had gone.
THE BULLDOZER ARRIVED at the driveway of 15 Hoffstots Lane on the morning of Saturday, April 16. It rolled down to the water’s edge, and after it raised its massive metal appendage over the house and toward Long Island Sound, the demolition of Lands End began. The claw barreled into the brittle walls, wedged forcefully through the windows, and ravaged the structure until the fatigued frame collapsed like a Jenga tower. The stairs disassembled and unfolded as the rooms were crushed, floor upon floor amassed as a pile of rubble.
“Of course, it’s sad,” Mr. Fetner, who presided over the spectacle, said. “It was a great house and a great part of the time. But nobody’s interested in living in a home like that. We’ll build magnificent homes again, just for today’s society.”
And when the five homes of Seagate at Sands Point go up, the millionaire owners won’t see the Jay Gatsbys and the Herbert Bayard Swopes and the Virginia Kraft Paysons. But they will still be there. The plot where Lands End once stood tall now only has history, its old facts and old fictions, an existence borne back ceaselessly into the past.
“If and when I go,” said Ms. Payson, “I will come back and haunt every one of those houses.”